Understanding When Dogs Need Space

Anyone who spends time around dogs has probably experienced a scenario where a seemingly friendly dog has come too close to another dog and it resulted in a negative or aggressive altercation. It may not always be clear why they reacted the way they did. Sometimes social creatures just appreciate some space.
The need for space could vary from day to day, location to location, person to person and dog to dog. If faced with unpleasant social situations, humans tend to suppress emotional outbursts and use other strategies to diffuse the tension (e.g., removing themselves from the situation), but dogs don’t necessarily have the same filters, options or skills.

Therefore, when dogs feel threatened or anxious, they are more likely to exhibit distress behaviors (e.g., yelping), escape behaviors (e.g., running behind their owner) or defensive aggression (e.g., growling, snapping, biting) in response to the situation. In turn, when a “friendly” dog is faced with an aroused or defensively aggressive dog, the “friendly” dog could suddenly become “unfriendly” and respond with aggression.

Principles

There are some basic behavior principles that people should be aware of so they can avoid negative experiences like the ones described above. For starters, there are a lot of reasons dogs may need space. These dogs may be:
  • Service and working dogs.
  • Ill or recovering from surgery.
  • Least-reactive.
  • Injured or have painful physical conditions, like arthritis.
  • Intolerant of other animals.
  • Fearful of unfamiliar people.
  • Aging or elderly.
  • Learning self-control around other dogs.
  • Fearful of unfamiliar or rowdy dogs.
  • Owned by people who want to be left alone.
Responsible pet owners realize that these types of dogs exist and take steps to make sure that their dog does not unintentionally traumatize a dog that needs space by:
  • Obeying all leash laws.
  • Always asking permission to let their dog approach another owner's pet.
  • Listening and respecting the response of the other pet owner (e.g., if the other pet owner says no, they pass by without allowing any close contact).
  • Watching for signs of anxiety or aggression and removing their dog if the other dog shows signs of anxiety, distress, or aggression.
A good pet owner thinks not only about the health and well-being of their dog but the impact that their dog may have on the health and well-being of other dogs—in other words takes steps to protect all dogs. A dog’s behavior can vary based upon the environment, other dogs, the day, the response, etc.

Just like humans, dogs can have good days and bad days! 
  • “Friendly” dogs may not stay friendly if they feel challenged or threatened. 
  • Dogs on leash may feel especially vulnerable and threatened when approached by an off-leash dog. 
  • Two dogs that may get along well when off-leash may have a different dynamic when one or both of the dogs are on leash. 
When an animal is faced with a threatening situation, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and releases stress hormones such as adrenaline to prepare the body to respond to the threat. This is known as the “fight or flight” response. The threatened animal will either flee (flight) or use aggression (fight) to back off the threat. The on-leash dog has limited “flight” options, so in this situation a dog that normally would flee may respond with aggression.
Remember, just because a dog doesn’t snarl or bite doesn’t mean it is being friendly. An approaching dog may actually be challenging or threatening the other dog.
A little behavior knowledge and vigilance and respect on the part of pet owners can go a long ways toward ensuring peaceful dog interactions.